On Revanchist Policy and Water Infrastructure


In “Water Wars in Mumbai,” a book chapter in Infrastructural Lives, we learn an important lesson about infrastructure as a material-social entanglement, in particular, in relation to the poor: infrastructure — or the lack-thereof — can be used to subjugate the poor — thus, reproducing their impoverished state — but infrastructure also, with rare exception, binds the poor to the non-poor. 

This lesson dovetails nicely with Simone’s insights about postcolonial urban environment, and speaks to the fecundity of the chapters housed in the edited volume Infrastructural Lives. Continue reading

Networked infrastructure and the black box

Greetings from Montreal, soon Medellín… some thoughts on opening the “black box”.

In the recent article Small technologies, big change (PHG 2011) that Nicolas drew your attention to, I was trying to bring geographical and STS approaches to networked infrastructure into interaction for the specific purpose of moving away from the “black box” metaphor of networked infrastructure.

In the geography literature, a variety of metaphors about infrastructure (e.g. exoskeleton, cyborg urbanism…) place networked infrastructure as stabilized and isolated from users. It supports their daily lives, but they do not interact with it or influence it. Similarly, in the large technical systems literature, LTS are taken as black boxed, and purposefully so. They are built for durability and immunity from users.

However, what I found in my research was that many utility managers actually seek to engage a variety of user groups in the management of the infrastructural network through the introduction of relatively simple technologies into homes and businesses. These technologies, which I dub mediating technologies, can have a significant impact of the network. For example, they can reduce the strain on network capacity and on the environment. The technologies that I examined included a variety of home and business retrofits to improve water efficiency (reduce consumption) as well as different types of software to assist homeowners and large industrial consumers to detect leakage beyond the property line, encouraging them to fix problems themselves.

So, not only was the LTS (in my case, water and sewer infrastructure) malleable rather than rigid, managers actively sought to open up the black box and integrate users into its management, rather than striving for invisibility. All this could be accomplished, not through a gargantuan unearthing and remodeling of the system, but through the addition of relative simple technologies to its peripheral nodes.

Here, STS theory on the interaction of users becomes very important because it tells us that users can interact with technology in a variety of unintended ways, producing results that were not the intention of the developers of that technology. Thus, with the purposeful integration of users into the management of LTS, they become both more malleable and less predictable.

Such a shift, from stabilized black box to malleable and interactive, has the potential to generate a variety of progressive benefits. In Montreal, where I live, for example, there is no water metering and thus very little user information about their relationship to the system. The black box is retained, as are high levels of consumption and leakage. In other communities in Canada, utility managers found that by increasing user information, through metering, and giving users the tools to manage their consumption (e.g. low flow devices), a variety of positive effects resulted. These included reduced consumption (and sewage outflows) and delayed infrastructure expansion.

In Medellín, where I’m heading, users are integrated into the system in a variety of ways. Beyond, the standard mediating technologies that I discuss in the article, users are integrated directly into the construction of the infrastructure. In order to create jobs in Medellín’s low-income barrios, in 1998, the local utility EPM began contracting to the barrio councils (the JACs) to build needed infrastructure. EPM guides the JACs through the process and the JACs hire all local labor. Both residents and EPM staff find that by employing local people to build the infrastructure, it is built to a much higher standard than when the utility contracted the work to private construction firms. The process also develops the capacity in the JAC and the community to monitor the new systems and alert EPM of any problems. Thus, the black box can be opened up in a variety of ways with a variety of interesting consequences.

A good case, and the role of compatibility in theory selection

All, as promised, I would reveal some early review document about Govind Gopakumar‘s new book on water infrastructure in India named Transforming Urban Water Supply in India.

First, the book’s case selection is quite smart. India has a historical legacy of democratic social involvement of the public (a promise perhaps, between state and society) during the post-independence period. This context emerges, however, beset by global opportunities for growth and supra-state pressures for change. Infrastructure, fittingly, is stuck in the middle, especially when it comes to developing it, expanding it, and restructuring it. The case selection, therefore, becomes a good case to estimate, per the insights gathered by geographers and others interested in the expansion of neoliberal globalizaiton, whether or not the changes taking place in Indian urban infrastructure follow the trend toward “pervasive depoliticalization of public life” (Gopakumar 2012:4). Or, put another way,

Do global efforts erase existing political underpinnings and re-inscribe a fundamentally new political basis, or does the existing social and political environment continue to influence infrastructures in the face of global pressures? (Gopakumar 2012:5).

The question fits quite nicely with what Jan and I were thinking about as the new infrastructuralism. Govind’s research hints in many places, perhaps intentionally or perhaps he’s just feeling his way toward this or another new idea, of a broader theoretical contribution than is presented in the book. In this way, Govind’s book is somewhat bigger than it appears, both theoretically, but also literally, as the book is only 124 pages long.

Second, and here is a little more critique and a little less review, the book draws on David Harvey’s work, the Marxist geographer, Feenberg’s insights about technologies being designed to promote the interests of the powerful/influential, and Winner’s old (but still good) insight that technology shapes political life/reality in a way akin to how legislation does. What is sort of odd is that Pinch and Bijker’s piece on the social construction of technology (SCOT) plays a pivotal role in the theoretical build-up, especially insights about “relevant groups.” Now, SCOT has often been criticized for being apolitical or for ignoring issues related to power and politics (mainly, who is powerful enough to be “relevant,” if we must use the term power). For Govind, SCOT is nice because it allows him to distance himself from explaining infrastructural development and revision as merely moves toward purely technological or economic efficiency. However, this become a bridge to Winner, and wasn’t it Winner who wrote, famously, about the third step in SCOT analysis, of “opening the black and finding it empty” …

Govind Gopakumar on Water Infrastructure

At the 4S meeting, Jan and I met Govind Gopakumar, who recently published a book on water infrastructure in India named Transforming Urban Water Supply in India.

The abstract:

The absence of water supply infrastructure is a critical issue that affects the sustainability of cities in the developing world and the quality of life of millions of people living in these cities. Urban India has probably the largest concentration of people in the world lacking safe access to these infrastructures.

This book is a unique study of the politics of water supply infrastructures in three metropolitan cities in contemporary India – Bangalore, Chennai and Kochi. It examines the process of change in water supply infrastructure initiated by notable Public Private Partnership’s efforts in these three cities to reveal the complexity of state-society relations in India at multiple levels – at the state, city and neighbourhood levels. Using a comparative methodology, the book develops as understanding of the changes in the production of reform water policy in contemporary India and its reception at the sub-national (state) level. It goes on to examine the governance of regimes of water supply in Bangalore, Chennai and Kochi, and evaluates the role of the partnerships in reforming water supply. The book is a useful contribution to studies on Urban Development and South Asian Politics.

I’ve made arrangements to review the book for the Social Studies of Science, and I’ll post some preliminary comments here on the blog. Welcome aboard, Govind…